Healing Mind & Body
By MELANIE KILGORE-HILL
Education, Early Intervention Key
One in five Americans suffer from a diagnosable mental illness in any given year. Fortunately, improved awareness surrounding mental health is evolving as practitioners and researchers gain a better grasp of the mind-body connection.
In Nashville, Mental Health America of Middle Tennessee (MHAMT) is helping break down age-old stigmas associated with a mental health disorder, sharing resources and spreading awareness of the need for early intervention. Founded in 1946 by Vanderbilt's first Chair of Psychiatry Frank Luton, MD, the organization connects the community with mental health and wellness resources, provides services that improve quality of life, and promotes effective services where mental health needs exist.
Tom Starling, EdD, CEO
"People are better understanding that mental illness isn't always schizophrenia or hoarding," said Tom Starling, EdD, CEO of MHAMT and incoming president of the national Mental Health America organization. "So often it's illness triggered by divorce or family problems, workplace wellness, returning from war or childbirth."
Fortunately, many providers today have a better understanding of integrated, holistic care, including spirituality and the interconnectedness of physical and mental health. Starling said more and more providers are adopting integrative approaches that treat the whole person, which he said results in lower hospital readmission rates and improved outcomes.
"We have to make sure the person isn't just physically well but has the confidence and assurance to sustain themselves in less restrictive environments," he said. "Providers are better understanding that if you do have a mental health issue, you're not any more 'defective' than a person with a cholesterol problem. People are realizing there isn't 'health' without mental health."
To that end, Starling is a vocal advocate for early intervention for mental illness. MHA's campaign, B4Stage4, encourages providers and patients to seek help at the first sign of illness rather than waiting till it becomes an emergency.
"You would never purposefully wait until your cancer or kidney disease hit stage 4 before getting treatment, so why would you wait until hospitalization or incarceration to treat mental illness?" Starling asked. "Often times we know something's wrong but don't offer treatment until there's a suicide attempt or major crisis. By the time most people call us, they actually needed help six to eight weeks ago, and it's now a chronic ailment. We want to encourage early prevention through screenings and education."
Since the inception of its online screening program in May 2014, the national MHA has collected more than three million screens, now averaging about 3,000 screenings a day.
The screens, which are also accessible through the MHAMT website, are free, confidential and evidence-based. There are screens to help identify conditions from depression and anxiety to bipolar disorder and PTSD. Starling said MHAMT also works with providers to create a customized URL, which allows the provider to offer the screens to patients from their practice website.
Starling said that two-thirds of those who screen positive online for mental illness have never received any sort of formal diagnosis. "If you test positive, there are places to go for help, and things you can do to get better," he said. For example, he continued, "There are so many things you can do to treat anxiety and depression from exercise and diet to improving your sleep architecture."
MHA and state affiliates also provide "mental health first aid" training to airport personnel, clergy, law enforcement and others who might be called upon to stabilize a situation until mental health professionals arrive. Participants learn skills to better recognize panic attacks and suicidal ideation, or how to approach a person affected by addiction. There are additional courses teach caregivers to keep dementia patients safe at home and build resiliency for themselves, while school programs provide training on managing bullies and coping with bad days and negative emotions.
MHAMT also provides continuing education courses for providers, attorneys, counselors, long-term care staff, and other professionals likely to encounter those in need of mental health intervention. The specialized training, noted Starling, is especially important and helpful for frontline medical personnel, particularly those in emergency departments who are typically better trained to identify broken bones and lacerations than depression.
Another service is to serve as a resource to providers and a source of information. Starling said it can be difficult to navigate the mental health system, and MHAMT can provide materials for providers to keep on hand from the National Institute of Mental Health with many publications being available in both English and Spanish.
As a referral helpline service, MHAMT also helps patients connect with providers to find the most affordable services available, close to home. Staff have partnered on several community-wide efforts including the Tennessee Safety Net Consortium, which connects people to charitable clinics. Their goal is to encourage preventative care and help more patients find an integrated healthcare home. MHAMT's Nashville office also houses the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network, which works to curb the 9th leading cause of death in Tennessee.
"One of the best things we can offer providers is education and awareness for the patient or client who needs more attention," said Starling, noting their ability to connect patients with local research studies and trials, brochures and other support materials. "We want to help providers keep patients and clients in a holding pattern until they have the treatment they need."